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In a literary giant's footsteps

By From Independent By Susan Tordella / Staff Writer

Jack Kerouac left a legacy through his notorious 1950s-Beat generation book, "On the Road." His spirit still reverberates in Lowell - at various Kerouac festivals and shrines, and at UMass Lowell where his literary estate supports a writer-in-residence in the author's memory.

Elizabeth Cox, the author of three novels and an experienced writing professor, has been selected as the third writer to teach one writing class this semester at UMass Lowell and read from her works at two events.

"I'm very honored," said Cox, in the cozy living room of her antique King Street home. Many people might recognize her dwelling from the sheep she hosts in summer in the pasture beside the house and barn.

"I have such a good pasture here," Cox said, that a Harvard shepherd loans her some of his flock over the summer.

"I love seeing them every day. They have personality. I love looking out my kitchen window and seeing them graze," Cox said. Fellow residents also enjoy the sheep. "People in town thank me for keeping the sheep every year," she said.

Recognizing the personality of her borrowed sheep is similar to what Cox does when she creates fictional characters, and what she coaches students to do with their imaginary people.

"I try to get them to have characters to interact with each other," Cox said of her 21 writing students. She also encourages her flock to wander.

"Your idea of a story may not take you to the final product. The idea might change as you work with the characters. It does involve a letting go," she said. In the same way she sees the intricacies of the sheep's personalities from her spacious office in the barn, Cox advises her students to see the world around them with a writer's acuity. For example, she says to notice gestures "that indicate embarrassment, lies, desperation," she said.

Part of becoming a writer is learning to think like one and to be observant. "Creative writing can't be taught, but it can be learned. I think there's a wonderful truth in that," she said.

Cox started writing in her 20s, in her first career before she earned a masters of fine arts degree, when she was a special education teacher in the South. Her first story - "Land of Goshen" - was about one of her special needs students, who taught her about the power of observation.

"When I was teaching special education, I had to pay close attention to each student and how they could develop" within the limits of their handicaps, Cox said.

The training proved to be useful both in bringing an acute sense of awareness of people and situations, and how to best teach to writing students. "Everyone has a different voice and I seek the voice that is theirs," said Cox of her writing proteges.

The Tennessee native still retains a light touch of a Southern accent, even though she has owned the King Street house for nine years with husband Michael Curtis, an editor for Atlantic Monthly.

She calls her husband a valuable source in the creative process. "My husband is the best editor of all. I would be crazy not to use him as an editor."

Cox commuted to Duke University in North Carolina for nine years to teach there. "It's hard to find a job up here. There are so many writers," she said. In addition to the UMass position, Cox teaches fiction at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont. In between the rigorous schedule of teaching, Cox is at work on another novel. She writes about one novel over a five-year period, with short stories sprinkled in.

"Its hard for me to say what my own novels are about," she said of the new book. "It's about violence children to do other children - and wondering what kind of world we are creating that allows that to happen. And it's probably a wish for community."

The Littleton community has captivated her. "I love the size of [Littleton]. I love the community around it," Cox said. "I love hearing those church bells every hour."

While humbled by the Kerouac position, Cox said she admires the famous Lowell native for his contributions to writing. "He was very important in exposing the rigidity of the fifties. His writing opened a door for other writers and other behaviors," she said.

The two previous Kerouac writers-in-residence were Jill McCorkle and Andre Dubus III.

Cox's books - "Night Talk," "The Ragged Way People Fall out of Love," "Familiar Ground," and "Bargains in the Real World," are available at Willow Books on Great Road in Acton.